ALS and Wellness Blogger
How to Focus & Pay Attention; Mindfulness for pALS & cALS
This post is adapted from my presentation at the "Ask the Experts" seminar
held on 4-8-2017 in Tucson, AZ, which was sponsored by the Arizona Chapter
of the ALS Association
Okay, Okay... I know, we ALL know, how to pay attention - - when we REALLY have to, that is.
Like right now, you're brain is focused on these words, curious and anticipating learning something new and interesting. But soon, what you're reading will spark a memory and you'll drift off for a few seconds, maybe minutes...or even longer.
Suddenly you're going down that rabbit hole of just plain tuning out.
We get stuck in a loop of mindless mental chatter. Going through our days on autopilot. And we all know autopilot works - - well, it sort of works!
I remember I could coast a long time on autopilot - - easy-peezy! But soon after being diagnosed with ALS, I learned the hard way that even simple things like walking, drinking and eating … done without paying attention. Well, just weren’t safe anymore!
Why do we tune out? Our brains don’t like to pay attention to boring things. Even though you may be driving a car, running a sewing machine or cooking dinner - - all very important things - - your brain says, “I’ve done this a million times - - bor-rrrring!” - - and tunes out; shifting your attention instead to all that “interesting” mindless chatter!
Think of it as, the part of our brain that loves to get immersed in a project - - be engaged, be in the flow, fully attuned and focused on what you’re doing right NOW - - gets pushed to the back - - and slouches. You could call it "bad posture of the mind."
What Can We Do?
The answer is to learn to be mindful; also called “in the moment.” It’s a feeling of awareness, calm and being attentive. It’s having a flexible state of mind and actively noticing new things around you.
You can learn to be mindful - - right now - - it’s simple and I’ll teach you how.
But since most beginners can only stay in the present moment for about 15 seconds or so, I'll also share how to get better at being mindful for longer periods of time.
Here’s the quick method - - called Active Mindfulness - - there's only 3 simple steps.
1. - - you need to realize you were lost in thought or, “not here;” snap out of daydreaming. This usually happens when you wonder something like, “Why did I walk into this room?!”
2. - - immediately, in that split second - - notice 5 things that are around you.
3. - - continue to keep your brain curious & alert by continuing to notice, feel, even hear what’s around you. (Read my previous posts on Active Mindfulness -- Try this one for a more in-depth explanation- - for a shorter version - - check out this one).
To lengthen our brain’s attention span, to be able to focus for longer and longer periods of time, we’ll need to hit the gym. The mental gym that is!
And meditation is the perfect workout!
Spending only 10-minutes a day - - to sit quietly and focus on something simple like your breathing, or relaxing your shoulders or listening to nature - - will strengthen your brain’s focus for more difficult things like - - driving a car or reading long blog posts!
Many years ago, at my wellness center we taught the Mindfulness Stress Reduction Program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Many of our students in this six-week intensive program had chronic health conditions and pain. Our results were so impressive that their private health insurers paid for the classes, in full! Jon Kabat-Zinn has led over 30 years of research on the health benefits of meditation. For instance, besides offering pain relief, meditation will also help you sleep better, support your immune system and help your brain process stress.
If you have never tried meditating, here is a link to a simple and easy 1-minute meditation. A quick search on YouTube will give you many more to choose from. Rather not watch YouTube? Then consider using one of the many free meditation apps (listed below) available for your phone or tablet.
YouTube link: https://youtu.be/0fcdv0kFVMs
Ellen Langer, PhD, has spent over 40 years studying mindfulness theory and she is the one who developed the technique of Active Mindfulness. Recently she turned her attention to the benefits of mindfulness for the elderly, those with chronic diseases, cancer and now to ALS.
In 2013, Dr. Langer received a grant from the ALS Association to study mindfulness and ALS. 197 subjects (pALS and their cALS) were taught how to use Active Mindfulness. The study included pre- and post- testing and the results were pretty impressive!
Link to full research article:
Dr. Langer is now developing short training videos for an online program so more pALS and cALS can learn mindfulness.
Are you still in the present moment? How do you know if you are? It’s easy, the secret is the “shift” - - when you notice you’re daydreaming - - then you’re no longer daydreaming!
As a person living with ALS, practicing mindfulness has helped me feel that I am in control, have more awareness and that I am moving safely. I’m also able to more fully enjoy the many experiences that come with each day.
I encourage everyone to take advantage of this easy to learn technique; mindfulness brings many health benefits and is something we all can do to improve the quality of our lives.
More on Active Mindfulness, Dr. Langer and her research:
Dr. Langer's website: http://langermindfulnessinstitute.com/
Books on Mindfulness: http://www.ellenlanger.com/books/
More on Meditation: (certainly not the only source, but a good place to begin your exploration)
Meditation research: http://meditation-research.org.uk/
Jon Kabat-Zinn website: https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/
Books on meditation: https://www.amazon.com/Jon-Kabat-Zinn/e/B000AQ12GA
Apps, Apps & More Apps!
I have tried out and enjoy using the app: Calm (https://www.calm.com/) and Stop, Breathe & Think (http://www.stopbreathethink.org/)
What are your favorite apps? Please share in the comment section below.
"Wherever you go, there you are"